A review by BC PIRES
MARIEL BROWN’S film Unfinished Sentences was begun as a documentary about her father, the late Wayne Brown, one of Trinidad’s most influential newspaper writers, a public figure and a fitting subject for biography in any form.
As the film develops, though, its focus changes before the eyes of the viewer. A documentary somehow becomes a memoir and a purportedly subjective portrait of a writer actually becomes a deeply personal map of a film-maker’s uneasy voyage into the creative mind of her greatest artistic influence, and out of the mental doldrums in which her father’s death had left her.
Unfinished Sentences, then, turns out to be a prescient working title and perfect final one. The film the director started is never properly finished; and the one she finishes was never properly started. In that sense, the film is, undoubtedly, structurally flawed. But not fatally; indeed, the thing that might conceivably break it – the welding together of two disparate elements – is the thing that makes it.
Brown’s courageous decision to pursue the true creative path of her project delivers, in the end, the film’s knockout punch: the child in the opening frames who elevates her father to immortal status is, by the credits, the woman who can see her father’s faults, reveal some of her own, forgive him for being human, and move on in her own professional life by making a personal film.
The emotional honesty involved is almost unnerving. Brown reveals her father’s failings as a parent and her family relationships with an openness that might be thought of as naïve, if she did not herself have the final cut. Pass or fail, this was all deliberate. Wayne Brown’s reaction to Mariel Brown’s cutting her hair short, for instance, lays bare the child, and the man, in a way that is almost too raw – but the viewer sees that both deserve sympathy.
If Unfinished Sentences is really two separate films, both clearly deserved to be made. If they are one, they are joined in an almost umbilical way: It is hard to say whether the two parts are glued together by Wayne Brown’s poetry or his daughter’s own craft.
The greatest strength of the film may not be emotional at all, but technical: the unfinished first film is connected to the un-begun second one by robust film-making know-how – this might be the best-edited film ever shot in Trinidad. The script of Unfinished Sentences must have been rewritten over and over, until it could fit footage already shot and lead, from a start to which it was not fundamentally connected, to the end to which the film-maker was pulled by her muse.
Again, because so little video of Wayne Brown exists, the film-maker pads out her limited family home movies with dramatic recreations, using actors, to underwrite the films visuals. This normally cheesy device is made to work so very well that the scenes involving Wayne Brown’s first wife make the viewer think, initially, that the young Megan Hopkyns-Rees bore an uncanny resemblance to today’s Sophie Wight (the real-life actor who plays her).
There are, admittedly, chinks in this armour: if you stage a seaside scene supposedly set in Jamaica, you ought not to let your viewers recognise Maracas Beach so readily.
Apart from that one clunky scene, the cinematography, by Sean Edghill and Nadia Huggins, ranges from highly competent to outstanding. The film’s strongest visual moment – the freeze-frame in the water of the young Wayne Brown with his daughters that makes the viewer gasp – is achieved by sleight-of-frame: the scene does not really include any Browns at all, but the young actors (Reynaldo Frederick, Che and Alessandra Jardine) playing them.
The technical strengths show in the audio, too, from the sublime (Francesco Emmanuel’s acoustic guitar) to the ridiculously hard to endure (the director’s ear-splitting tinnitus).
In the end, Unfinished Sentences, does not just survive, but surmounts, its syntactic unease. A film that sets out to show the place her father held in the Caribbean world of letters ends by revealing the place he held in his daughter’s world – and, en passant, the relationship between creator and receptor of art. My old friend Wayne Brown, were he alive today, would have given this film a glowing review; and would have been most pleased at the truths it revealed, even – especially – about him.
Unfinished Sentences screens as part of the NGC Bocas Literary Festival at the Central Bank Auditorium tonight.